Will the planning system benefit from localisation?

Tuesday 20th July 2010

The Decentralisation and Localism Bill announced in the Queen’s speech on May 25, 2010 will provide fundamental changes to the planning system.

The Bill stems from the Government’s coalition agreement to return certain powers to local authorities. It proposes to ‘devolve greater powers to councils and neighbourhoods and give local communities control over housing and planning decisions applying to England and Wales’. The Bill aims to provide local people with more power, to free local Government from central Government and regional control and to create a more efficient and local planning system.

A number of changes have been proposed to the planning system including the abolishment of the Infrastructure Planning Commission and replacing it with a democratically accountable body to assist with major infrastructure planning. It also advocates the replacement of Regional Development Agencies with Local Enterprise Partnerships between local authorities and businesses to drive local economic development.

However, one of the main changes the Bill proposes is to abolish the Regional Spatial Strategies, a framework originally brought in by the Labour Government to provide long term overarching strategic planning guidance for sustainable, economic growth and development at a regional level.

The Regional Strategies will be legally abolished when the Bill is passed through parliament later this year. However, last week the coalition Government affirmed their commitment for its removal from the planning system by formally revoking all Regional Spatial Strategies (except for the London Plan).

Letters have been sent to local planning authorities by the Department for Communities & Local Government informing them that they should have regard to adopted Development Plan Documents or old style Local Plans still in existence, when determining planning decisions. They have indicated that evidence used in preparation of revoked regional strategies may be a material consideration, depending on the facts of the case.

The Communities & Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, stated that revoking and abolishing the Regional Strategies would lead to the planning system becoming ‘simpler, more efficient and easier for people to understand’. It is hoped that this will encourage investment, economic growth and help meet the country’s housing needs.

However, the proposals have been criticised by some within the property community who are concerned that the removal of Regional Strategies will create a large strategic gap in the planning system which could hinder development and have a major effect on economic recovery.

The Royal Town Planning Institute’s (RPTI) president, Ann Skippers, stated it was “vital to have a level of strategic planning between local councils and national Government to ensure proper coordination across council boundaries”. Miss Skippers added that “the hasty abolition of regional planning will leave a vacuum in terms of the policy needed to give the certainty to major investment decisions that will help get us out of recession.”

The coalition Government plan on introducing new financial incentives to encourage local authorities to deliver housing schemes. Details of the incentives will be provided later this year. However, there are concerns that the removal of housing targets provided under the Regional Spatial Strategies and the delay in providing details of the financial incentives for housing, could lead to development schemes being mothballed as there will be insufficient pressure on local authorities to approve these schemes.

There are also fears that the removal of Regional Strategies will make it more difficult to obtain approval for more contentious projects (for example the development of renewable energy sources such as wind farms).

The coalition Government have stressed that the abolition of the Regional Strategies will mean that there is a greater emphasis on local planning authorities to develop and apply Development Plan Documents, which to date many local planning authorities have failed to do.

However the coalition Government has also indicated that reforms may be made to the Local Development Framework system to make it easier for local councils to agree and amend local plans with the community. It is questionable therefore whether local planning authorities will be prepared to spend time and resources in developing and applying Local Development Framework documents until the reforms are announced.

The coalition Government have made a decision early on in their term to decentralise power in order to help simplify the planning system and make it more efficient. Providing greater power to local authorities and encouraging local community involvement in the planning process has been supported by many in the property community.

It should help to reduce the amount of objections to applications and therefore make the application process smoother. However there are a number of gaps which have been left by the removal of the Regional Strategies which will need to be filled to ensure that the changes they are proposing will be effective.

They will need to address how planning will be coordinated across local planning authorities on a strategic level, to ensure consistency in the decision making across the regions. They will need to outline the financial incentives which will be provided to local planning authorities to deliver housing schemes to meet the demand.

They will also need to ensure that any amendments to the local plan system are made promptly and put a system in place to ensure that local planning authorities deliver their Local Development Frameworks as soon as possible.

The coalition Government will need to ensure the gaps are filled quickly to provide confidence in the market and encourage development during these difficult times.

If you wish to discuss this article, or any issues around planning law, then please contact Mark Blackburn on 0113 227 0370 or e-mail: mark.blackburn@gordonsllp.com